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The Federal Government Is Finally Acknowledging How Columbia River Basin Dams Have Harmed Tribes

What just happened: With the release of a new report, the federal government has publicly recognized the role federal dams have played in decimating Northwest salmon and steelhead populations, flooding hundreds of thousands of acres in the Columbia/Snake River Basin, and inundating Tribal villages, cultural sites and traditional fishing areas. The Tribal Circumstances Analysis from the Department of the Interior, published last week, acknowledges these harms and highlights the need to take immediate action to honor the federal government’s Treaty and trust obligations to Tribes and prevent salmon extinction.

Why it matters: Dams are one of the greatest threats to the survival of Northwest salmon, and they impede Tribes from exercising their treaty rights to fish in the river basin. Restoring the Basin is essential to Tribes — and will bring a better future for everyone.

In December, the Biden administration signed an agreement with four lower Columbia Basin Tribes, the states of Oregon and Washington and conservation, fishing and renewable energy groups represented by Earthjustice that opens a path to restoring fish populations and includes the exploration of breaching the four Snake River dams. The Tribal Circumstances Analysis was part of that agreement and reinforces the need for federal action. For three decades, Earthjustice has fought in court to protect the river basin’s native fish, and we commend the Biden administration for recognizing Tribal injustices that for too long have been ignored.

What the report says

  • Treaty rights trampled: In signing treaties with the United States in the mid-1800s, four Tribes on the lower Columbia (the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Nez Perce Tribe) reserved on- and off-reservation fishing, hunting, and gathering rights in perpetuity in exchange for ceding millions of acres to the federal government. Dams on the Snake and Columbia limit the Tribes’ ability to fish at their traditional sites — and have decimated populations of salmon, steelhead, and other native fish species.
  • Further harm: The report also documents how other Tribes, such as those in the upper Columbia Basin, can no longer harvest salmon on their reservations, because dams block the fish from reaching them.
  • A promise kept: This analysis is one of the U.S. government commitments promised in the Resilient Columbia Basin Agreement signed last December. The four lower Columbia Treaty Tribes signed onto the agreement, along with the states of Oregon and Washington and conservation, fishing, and renewable energy groups represented by Earthjustice.

Why the dams are killing fish

  • The problem with the dams: Dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers kill fish as they pass through them. These dams also create slow-moving reservoirs that diminish salmon habitat and can become lethally hot to the fish while fostering conditions favorable for non-native fish and birds that prey on salmon.
  • Most imperiled: The Columbia and Snake River dams have taken a heavy toll on all salmon species that must migrate past any of them, but the Snake River salmon that must migrate through eight dams face the most barriers of the runs that remain and are closest to extinction.
  • Decades of devastation: Dam construction began along the lower Snake River in the 1950s, blocking a major migration route that linked millions of acres of pristine salmon spawning habitat in central Idaho to the Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Species on the brink: Today, 13 of the basin’s salmon and steelhead populations are listed as threatened or endangered, while four others have gone extinct. Only about 2 million salmon and steelhead now return to the Columbia Basin annually, less than 10% of historical runs, with two thirds of those fish consisting of hatchery fish.
  • No time to waste: If we don’t act now, the remaining salmon in the Snake River face extinction. The science is clear that removal of the four lower Snake River dams is the single best thing we can do to save salmon from extinction and restore their populations to abundance.

Tribal response

  • From the Nez Perce Tribe: “The United States — by telling the truth about the historic and ongoing injustices the federal dams have imposed on our people and by embracing its treaty and trust obligations — is upholding the rule of law and highlighting the urgency to act to prevent salmon extinction,” said Shannon Wheeler, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee in a press statement. He added that the Nez Perce look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. government to take action.
  • From the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation: “It is the first time the federal government tells the truth about how the construction of the dams on the Columbia River devastated salmon runs, inundated tribal villages, important regional gathering and trading centers, sacred sites, burial grounds, and fishing areas that tribes depended upon for subsistence and trade,” CTUIR Board of Trustees Member at Large Corinne Sams said in a press statement. Sams also chairs the CTUIR’s Fish & Wildlife Commission and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “These government-built structures not only caused the salmon runs to precipitously decline, and contributed to the extinction of some runs, but have made it exceedingly difficult to rebuild runs, as well as exercise the treaty reserved fishing right that our ancestors fought for in the treaty negotiations with the United States.”
  • From the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation: “The Yakama Nation has always spoke for the water, fish, and cultural resources that cannot speak-up for themselves,” said Gerald Lewis, Yakama Tribal Council Chairman, in a press statement. “I am hopeful that through this report, federal entities will listen to Yakama People. We will know that we have been heard when the hydro-system agencies start prioritizing their commitments to salmon recovery and our tribal fishers.”

What comes next

  • More commitments to meet: The Resilient Columbia Basin Agreement, signed in December, and the accompanying U.S. government commitments include more than half a billion dollars in new federal funding and federal support to help Tribes build clean energy projects that could replace the power supplied by the lower Snake River dams.
  • Securing funding: President Biden proposed significant funding increases to honor commitments to Tribal Nations and support Columbia Basin salmon populations in his FY25 President’s Budget Request. We must ensure this funding is appropriated by Congress.
  • Replacement studies: Joint federal-state studies to evaluate how to replace and improve upon the energy, transportation, irrigation, and recreation services provided by the lower Snake River dams are now underway. Public engagement from a broad variety of stakeholders will be critical as the agencies work to complete these planning documents.
  • Fish needs planning: A federal-state 10-year fish needs plan is scheduled to be completed this fall. The plan will identify key actions, in addition to the ones already included in the agreement, that are necessary to advance the recovery of healthy and abundant Columbia Basin fisheries, consistent with a presidential memorandum issued in September 2023. This plan will also help inform additional funding needed to restore salmon and other native fish across the basin in the years to come.
Ciarra Greene, member of the Nez Perce Tribe, walks along a section of the Snake River near Asotin, Wash.
Ciarra Greene, member of the Nez Perce Tribe, walks along a section of the Snake River near Asotin, Wash. (Brian Plonka for Earthjustice)